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Making Cents of the Organic Food Debate

CDKitchen Cooking Columnist Pamela Chester
About the author: Pamela Chester
Mom of two; graduate French Culinary Institute; kids cooking program instructor; Master's degree in food studies. Creates kid friendly foods and loves her slow cooker.
If you have been paying attention to the news lately, then you know that a hot topic on many people’s mind is the debate over our present food system. In my own home, we often talk about whether there is value in buying organic (and consequently paying higher prices) or not. While you can’t always see the difference in the items on the shelves at the grocery store, proponents of organic food say that exposure to pesticides and industrial farming methods used in conventionally raised produce are harmful to our health. Also the cheap price of food today is said to come at an unseen cost to both our health and the environment. This point is illustrated in the recent documentary Food, Inc. and has also come up frequently in the media over the last few years. But on the other side you could say that by buying organic, you are paying more for a lifestyle choice and the marketing cachet that the organic label gives to your food, while in reality you are seeing few benefits.

So where do I stand? Are organic fruits and vegetables really worth the extra money? In an ideal world, my true preference would be to grow it myself or buy locally produced sustainably farmed food (a whole other debate for another article). But my real world scenario is a combination of all the different buying choices: local, organic, and conventional, as budget and time allow. I almost always buy meats that are naturally raised without added hormones, and organic milk (it just tastes better). As far as produce, there are a few items I try to stick with organics, but it becomes too costly to buy everything organic without spending all of our hard earned cash.

It makes me think of a certain natural foods grocery store chain where people joke you could spend your entire week’s salary on groceries. And I have found myself in said store putting back items after being “sticker shocked” at what they cost ($5 for a couple of organic sweet potatoes? I don’t think so).

With that being said, in my opinion any fruits and vegetables you can add to your child’s diet are preferable to the more highly processed and refined choices you find lining the freezer and shelf space at the grocery store. In other words, I try to stick with the advice of shopping the perimeter of the store. It saves you money and is more healthful in the long run.

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Then if your budget and your preference allows, you can buy organic in the priority items where it matters most. The Environmental Working Group has published a list of the "dirty dozen," the produce that has the highest pesticide residue. The list includes apples, peaches, celery, lettuce and potatoes. Conversely there is a list of fifteen “clean” items that are least contaminated. Some of these are avocados, onions, bananas, and broccoli. You can even download these lists in a wallet size or as an iPhone application.

Shopping this way will only add a few dollars to your grocery bill each week, but enables you to make choices that could benefit you and your family’s long term health. So if you do choose to buy organic, this is a way to make it possible to do so on a limited budget.
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